By Crikey reporter Lucy Morieson
Geoff Gallop’s announcement yesterday that he’s resigning as WA Premier to focus on treating his depression left the media with a quandary: how to report on mental illness.
And they trod delicately, says Jaelea Skehan, Program Director of the Nationally funded Mindframe Initiative, which works with media organisations and journalists across Australia to promote accurate and sensitive portrayal of mental health issues.
Skehan says the media coverage of Gallop’s resignation has “generally been very sensitive,” recognising that his decision to give the real reason for his resignation took great courage. Judging from today’s reports, it seems the Australian media has used the announcement as a means to stimulate public discussion – rather than sensationalising and trivialising the illness or the announcement.
“I think we have seen a shift in the way the Australian media cover mental health issues,” says Skehan. And with both broadcast and print media organisations seeking comment from appropriate experts in the field, they are showing their willingness to promote understanding of mental illness and ways of seeking help. Skehan has been encouraging journalists to provide help-line numbers at the end of their stories – the only thing that’s been missing in the coverage so far.
But according to Andrea Kincade of SANE Australia, Gallop’s story is already causing ripples for some Australians. The national SANE Helpline received a call from a 76-year-old Sydney man after he heard the number (1800 18 SANE) on ABC radio this morning, saying that while he considered himself very successful, he might be suffering from “just a wee bit of depression.” And while 75% of SANE’s callers are usually female, calls from males are increasing – with an obvious spike since Gallop’s announcement. Today, 60% of SANE callers are men speaking about mental illness to another person for the first time in their lives.
When it comes to reporting on mental illness, Mindframe advises that the first question the media needs to ask is whether the person’s mental illness is relevant to story. If it is, then appropriate language is essential, especially when recent research has found that terms like “lunatic, schizo, crazies, maniac, and looney bin” are still used by the media.
Also, referring to someone with a mental illness as a “victim” who is “suffering” with or “afflicted” by a mental illness is outdated. Rather, it’s best described as something they are currently experiencing, being treated for, or have a diagnosis of. And the term mental illness is broad – be careful not to imply that all mental illnesses are the same.